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Vancouver’s growing pains

March 25, 2014

Vancouver’s neighbourhoods have experienced weak to no growth with one exception.

Vancouver has been approving some remarkably large condo developments. The most recent being the largest I think; the plans to super-size the already large Oakridge shopping mall into a”real city” with a total of 700,000 square feet of retail and nearly 3,000 housing units above the mall.

All this has me wondering if the City of Vancouver is trying to play catch-up — with the rest of Metro Vancouver.

Ha! I’m just kidding. Of course I believe that’s what the city is doing. And I think it’s going to have to do a lot more of the same if it intends to seriously compete for a greater share of new residents than it’s getting now.

Vancouver is experiencing wicked single digit growth. Lots of people are moving into the Greater Vancouver region but the vast majority of those people are settling anywhere but the City of Vancouver.

But then, exactly where in Vancouver could they live? Lane homes?

Making census of the “anywhere but Vancouver” movement

Between 2006 and 2011 British Columbia experienced a growth rate of 7%, increasing its population by 286,570 for a total of 4,400,057 people.

Metro Vancouver gained the most: 200,000 more residents between 2006 and 2011, bringing its population to 2.3 million — up 9.3% — which is over half of B.C.’s total population of 4.4 million.

According to Statistics Canada census data, little of that growth ended up on the Wet Coast. The City of Vancouver grew it’s population by 25,461 for a total of 603,502 — a percentage increase of only 4.4%.

Most of the rest of the new British Columbians went to municipalities on the south side of the Fraser River, settling in Richmond, Port Moody, Coquitlam or Surrey.

About 30% of the new residents went to Surrey which enjoyed a growth rate between 2006 and 2011 of 18.6%.

The growing problem of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods

The map at the top shows the basic population movement in Vancouver’s 22 neighbourhoods over a ten year period using census data from 2001, 2006 and 2011. A neighbourhood’s population either consecutively rose or fell or it did something in between: rose then fell or fell then rose.

The thing that jumps out of the numbers is how the population increase in Downtown Vancouver has nearly kept pace with the entire rest of Vancouver.

District 2001 2006 2011 Increase
Downtown Vancouver 27,990 43,415 54,690 26,700
The other 21 neighbourhoods 519,010 536,005 550,375 31,365

Condos are hot neighbourhoods are not

I think the majority of population growth in the neighbourhoods has to be due to densification in the form of new, higher-capacity, condo and apartment buildings. That’s especially true of the Downtown neighbourhood which includes Yaletown and the north False Creek Concord Pacific development as well as the Downtown Business Area.

For instance, Fairview — my neighbourhood — grew by 3,040 residents between 2001 and 2011. This has to be almost entirely due  to a number of old low-rise apartment buildings being replaced with larger pedestal towers.

There is also, I should add, a slight move to turn large single-family homes into multi-unit rental housing. I track this by the appearance of blue container bin sets in the residential alley ways.

I think it’s fair to say we’re at the beginning of a cycle that will see many of Fairview’s three-storey apartment building replaced by 10- to 12-storey buildings.

If not up, how else does growth occur in otherwise completely developed neighbourhoods with fixed boundaries?

Perhaps it doesn’t.

There go the neighbourhoods

Arbutus Ridge: Beteeen 2001 and 2006 the population rose from 14,515 to 16,145, for a five-year gain of 1,630 residents. Between 2006 and 2011, the population fell back to 15,910 — a loss of 205 residents which reduced the 10-year gain to 1,395.

Oakridge: The population rose between 2001 and 2006 from 11,795 to 12,725 and then fell back 285 to 12,440 in 2011.

West End: Increased between 2001 and 2006 from 42,120 to 44,560 and then lost a whopping 20 residents to fall to 44,540 in 2011.

Shaughnessy: A byword for wealth in Vancouver. Started 2001 with 9,020 residents; lost 80 of them by 2006 and lost another 95 by 2011 to end up at 8,805.

Grandview-Woodland: The East Vancouver neighbourhood has been steadily losing residents: 29,085 in 2001; down to 28,205 in 2006 and 27,305 in 2011 — a 10-year loss of 1,789 residents.

The data is from Statistics Canada via the City of Vancouver: Census local area profiles 2001-2011.

Vancouver is in ad-hoc up to here!

I don’t know enough about urban development to constructively criticize the city’s development policy — whatever it might be.

I will say though, it has been my impression of thirty years that Vancouver’s successive municipal governments have consistently tried to allow the largest amount of upward development that will cause the least amount of anger among ratepayers-slash-voters.

My question is whether the city can afford to keep growing in fits and starts at a snail’s pace while municipalities on the south side of the Fraser river are growing like weeds? Can it ever be “too little, too late” for a city.  Couldn’t the center of gravity just shift to to Surrey once and for all.

It’s just possible that the elected residents of Vancouver City Hall, faced with the choice of going slow and getting run over, or  going too fast and get kicked out of office have been following a third path — the bike path. That is, approving more, larger, developments and using other “hot button” issues like bike lanes and such to divert attention.

So the Point Grey bike route soaks up public anger and gets cancelled but the giant 54-storey, over-height Gateway tower complex goes ahead with comparatively little fuss.

I’m probably giving our civic leaders more credit than they deserve.

Not so special after all?

Though it’s had its moments, Vancouver has never been a cultural mecca like, say, New York. Instead, Vancouver has earned an enduring reputation as No Fun City — most of the time anyway — it can be a real riot if the Canucks make it into the Stanley Cup but the team has apparently resolved not to let that happen any time soon.

Vancouver’s regional clout has been based on economics and population. If Surrey matches and overtakes Vancouver’s population — which is expected within ten years — what will be so special about Vancouver?

What the City of Vancouver will be, what it already is — what it’s let itself become — is a brand name for the entire region of Metro Vancouver.

The 2010 Winter Olympics were a regional affair which used the brand “Vancouver” for it’s recognition value more than anything else. It seems one can now be located anywhere in what we used to call the “Lower Mainland” and say they are in Vancouver.

Maybe it’s time for Vancouver to just sit back and watch municipalities like Surrey catch up or trip up.

But can Vancouver afford to do that, tax base-wise? Certainly creating the necessary housing stock to be competitive with Surrey any time soon will transform/destroy the livability and character of neighbourhoods like Fairview.

Believe it or not, I’d rather Vancouver continued to stumble along haphazardly, that way we will at least continue to have pockets of different kinds of livability all over the city. I worry about politicians with a master plan.

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